AMANDA KNOTT and Reanna Tarleton braced themselves, dreading the words they've worked so hard not to hear.
The two Towson University students had battled each other and six other students for two months to win a full-time job at First Mariner Bank, in Towson's version of the NBC reality show The Apprentice. In this version, called The Associate, the Donald Trump part was played by Ed Hale, bank chairman, owner of the Blast professional indoor soccer team and real estate developer.
Hale played Trump kinder and gentler, but in the end he was supposed to utter the signature line that would end the contest: "You're fired."
Knott and Tarleton were the survivors for Tuesday night's finale. As Hale took his seat in Room 424 of Towson's Administration Building, in front of about 70 parents, friends, teachers and classmates, both students wore pasted smiles of nervousness.
For two months, they and the other contestants had put in 30- to 40-hour weeks on test projects for a number of local businesses, getting their assignments on Wednesdays with the challenge to make presentations on Sundays.
The assignments ranged from helping a commercial real estate company market space in a building to crunching numbers for a local manufacturer that wanted to consolidate its fabrication and assembly facilities. They even looked at how the Blast could boost ticket sales during its 25th anniversary season.
Students who blundered were booted.
The stress level ratcheted higher each week as the final day approached.
Knott, 22, a marketing major from LaPlata, "had no life."
In addition to putting in heavy hours for The Associate, she had her class work plus a 15-hour-a-week internship. She also was president of Towson's chapter of Beta Gamma Sigma, an honors fraternity for business programs.
"On Monday, I got my hair cut and got a new suit. I hadn't been to the mall since Christmas. I am normally at the mall every week," she said.
Saturday night, the day before her final presentation on marketing strategies for the Blast, Knott broke down in tears. A student who had been in the competition but was fired by Hale earlier, hugged Knott, gave her a pep talk and told her to get some coffee and "buckle down."
"That was my breaking point," Knott said.
Tarleton, 23, a double major in Spanish and international business from Frederick, stressed about papers and tests.
Besides schoolwork, she taught a Pilates classes at Gold's Gym and tended bar twice a week.
Her weekends were shot. Once she drove to Annapolis for a graduation party for a friend but spent only a couple of hours. At 4 a.m. the next day, she was in a Kinko's making copies for her presentation.
Tarleton relied on Red Bull, the energy drink loaded with caffeine, to keep her going. After finishing her presentation on Sunday evening, she wanted to celebrate. But she had a Spanish exam to study for.
On Tuesday, she sat next to Knott ready to face Hale.
He told the finalists he was impressed with their work. "I like to get fresh ideas," Hale said. "Some of them have a real potential use."
But Hale was stumped. Over the weekend, he said, he'd tossed the decision over and over in his head.
"What in the hell am I going to do?" he told the audience, building the suspense.
Then, he stunned everyone with an un-Trump-like decision.
"Instead of firing you," he said, "I am going to hire both of you."
Hale, who in his days as a shipping executive once donned a flak jacket during a longshoremen's strike, was caught up with emotion. His chin quivered.
"I will talk with you as soon as you graduate," he said.
The room erupted in applause and cheers. Knott wiped tears from her eyes, and Tarleton smiled, shocked by the decision.
"I am so tired. I am exhausted," Tarleton said.
But not too tired to attend a friend's birthday party at the Power Plant. "I am going out tonight," she said.
Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.